Opinion

Six Reasons BC Place Is Growing into a Giant Lemon

Half a billion dollars for what? Is this the Liberals' fast ferries fiasco?

By Bob Mackin, 4 Sep 2014, TheTyee.ca

BC Place lemon

Imagine the cost of your new convertible kept going up and up -- and the $500 million car just had a glitchy little sunroof instead. Photo illustration by Sarah Berman.

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It was the perfect storm.

Mere hours after talks collapsed between negotiators for the B.C. government and the province's public school teachers, the Vancouver Whitecaps were hosting the Portland Timbers in a Major League Soccer match at B.C. Place Stadium. Premier Christy Clark was spotted among the announced crowd of 21,000 for the home team's embarrassing 3-0 loss. The Whitecaps claim precisely 21,000 people attend most of their games. Not 20,999 or 21,001, but 21,000.

The roof was closed, for fear of rain (more about that later). Joining the Southsiders was Rebecca Bollwitt, who is known as @Miss604 to her 55,500 Twitter followers (which is about 1,000 more followers than B.C. Place's 54,320 capacity).*

"Either the roof is leaking or B.C. Place nominated me for some kind of bucket challenge," she tweeted before kickoff. Indeed it was leaking and stadium staff gave Bollwitt and those in her vicinity a cup (but not a bucket) of free beer to keep them happy.

Bollwitt's tweet was noticed and retweeted and picked up by several media outlets.

Yes, the roof of B.C. Place is back in the news for the wrong reasons.

What the fast ferries were to the NDP of the 1990s, B.C. Place is becoming for the BC Liberals, with a few major differences. True, the Liberals were pondering a modest $75 million redo of the original roof before going all-out with a $514 million renovation, all to be paid by the taxpayers -- an amount in excess of the $463 million bill British Columbians were stuck with for the fast ferries.

But a damning 1999 auditor general report served as the epitaph for the shipbuilding stimulus project. No such probe has occurred into B.C. Place, despite an early 2013 NDP complaint.

And unlike the Fastcats, B.C. Place cannot be hidden or sent halfway around the world to the Middle East for a bargain.

The third anniversary of the stadium's reopening is the end of this month. At a moment when $300 million would help kickstart the long-promised refurbishment of earthquake-prone St. Paul's Hospital or even solve the teachers' contract dispute, here are six reasons why that money, blown instead on BC Place overruns, is proving to be an investment that isn't paying off.

1. Roof leaks not just water, but grease too

Water leaks are nothing new at B.C. Place. Rain poured through the roof on the eve of the Canadian Football League championship game in 2011 just like it did in the days before the Sept. 30, 2011 reopening.

There are other leaks that continue to cause problems.

In late 2010, construction crews noticed grease leaking from the web of support cables they were installing. They realized quickly that when the fabric roof was finished, it would surely be stained. So they fashioned gutters to catch the goop and fitted the cables, supplied by Swiss-based Geobrugg AG, with absorbent material to prevent drips.

When all else failed, those panels stained by grease have been replaced one-by-one during each the last three summers. It is not a quick or simple task, according to documents obtained under Freedom of Information.

French cable installer Freyssinet sued Quebec steel supplier Canam for $6.5 million in 2011 and Canam countersued for $40.5 million. Before they reached an out-of-court settlement in March of this year, a judge heard that the leaks from the cables had caused $20 million damage. PavCo claims it isn't responsible for the cost.

Asked for an interview about the flurry of activity on the roof in July and August, B.C. Pavilion Corp. CEO Ken Cretney instead referred a Tyee query to the Crown corporation's spokesman, Duncan Blomfield.

"There is an issue related to lubricant stains on the roof of B.C. Place and the contractor is now making the repairs," Blomfield wrote in an Aug. 8 email. "The work is estimated to continue until November, and is being scheduled to avoid interference with events at B.C. Place."

2. Where's the 'open air'?

If it's not the condition of the roof, it's the size of the hole in the roof that is a source of debate and disappointment.

B.C. Place is the first North American venue with the type of German-engineered retractable roofing solution that was pioneered at Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt.

When the roof is open at Toronto's Rogers Centre or Seattle's Safeco Field, most of the stadium's seats are exposed to the elements. Think of it as a convertible. B.C. Place's system is more like a sunroof. Though the cool evening breeze is welcome in a place that once felt like a sauna on humid summer nights, the shadows cast from the overhead cables subtract from the atmosphere during a sunny afternoon.

3. What? That huge videoboard under the roof hole can't get wet?

The B.C. Place renovation project included the installation of a ground level drainage system that didn't exist under the old, air-supported roof. In case the roof can't be closed fast enough to mitigate a downpour, the drainage is there to prevent a flood of the field and dressing rooms.

So it's safe to assume that the designers acknowledged the possibility of rain falling through the open roof from time to time in one of the world's wettest climes. Except...

The retractable roof was left open during a dry spell earlier this summer. Lo and behold it was interrupted with rain. The drainage worked as required, but the raindrops wreaked havoc with the centre-hung videoboard and its complex electronics.

That's not the only electrical problem the stadium has experienced. The 516 twinkly LED beacon lights on the cables were ruined by rainwater. The warranty expired in Aug. 2013 and the California manufacturer, En Group Inc., went out of business.

4. Bill to taxpayers keeps rising

The entire cost of the renovation is still on the shoulders of taxpayers -- and growing.

A 20-year naming rights contract worth as much as $40 million had been hatched with Telus, which even commissioned a Telus Park sign. PavCo eventually bought all the wifi and video equipment Telus installed for $17 million after the government nixed the deal in 2012. The government grew weary of Bell, Rogers and Shaw crying foul over the $1 billion, 10-year government-wide telecommunications deal given to Telus in June 2011 after two years of competitive bidding on nine smaller contracts. So cabinet panicked and kiboshed the Telus naming rights deal.

BC Place leaking grease

Grease leaking from cables onto fabric roof panels has plagued BC Place for three years, costing $20 million and some major legal wrangling.

Paragon Gaming plans to move its Edgewater Casino from the Plaza of Nations to a new $535 million complex on the stadium's west side. Surveyors have been busy of late and the external video board facing the Cambie Bridge is earmarked for demolition as early as this fall. An April 2011 Vancouver city council decision prevents Paragon from installing more slot machines than it already has across the street. So PavCo agreed before the 2013 provincial election to cut the $6 million a year lease to $3 million a year over 70 years.

5. That empty feeling (after reno, Lions sell fewer seats)

Sports are the last bastion of live TV, hence the sums broadcasters are paying to air and stream games. Every game is broadcast in high definition with crystal clear sound. That, coupled with high prices for tickets and long concession stand lineups for expensive burgers and beer, is causing more fans to watch from the comfort of home or their local pub.

This is not unique to Vancouver, but it is affecting the two main tenants at the box office. On 25 occasions since their 2011 MLS debut, Vancouver Whitecaps have announced "sell out" or "full house" crowds of 21,000. But the entire upper deck is empty and blocked by a temporary curtain system and more than 5,000 lower bowl seats are left unsold, underneath tarps. It's supposed to create an atmosphere, the club says. What it really means to say is the demand for tickets isn't there yet.

The problem is more acute for CFL games. The B.C. Lions had bigger attendance before the renovation. In 2007, for instance, they had one game with a crowd under 30,000. For 2014 so far, only one game has been over 30,000. They owe each one of the fans who attended Aug. 22 a free ticket for another game after president Dennis Skulsky guaranteed a win, but the team lost to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

The Lions are also feeling the effect of so many Lower Mainlanders "cross-border shopping" for their football fix. An estimated 10 per cent of Seattle Seahawks' season ticket holders are from B.C.

The Leos and Caps get a cut of TV rights fees and they keep most of the ticket revenue; PavCo refuses to release the financial terms of their lease contracts. PavCo's primary revenue source is food and beverage sales. If there aren't as many bums in seats as hoped, then that impacts PavCo's concession revenue and its ability to pay down the renovation debt.

Only two post-renovation sporting events have come close to the 54,320 capacity: the 2011 Grey Cup and the 2014 NHL Heritage Classic.

6. You can't see BC Place business plan

When the air-supported roof was deflated in 2010, B.C. Place's revolving doors were removed. They still exist, figuratively, at the board and executive levels.

In 2012, developer David Podmore retired as chair and CEO Warren Buckley resigned. Veteran Deputy Minister Dana Hayden was seconded to PavCo from the Jobs, Tourism and Innovation Ministry as Buckley's interim replacement. Peter Fassbender, then mayor of Langley City, became chair while the BC Liberals groomed him for a run in the 2013 election.

The day after Fassbender won in Surrey-Fleetwood and the BC Liberals kept their majority, longtime general manager Howard Crosley was fired. PavCo has not disclosed the reason. When the Public Accounts were released in July, PavCo revealed Crosley left with a $460,146 golden parachute.

Vancouver Convention Centre general manager Ken Cretney took on Crosley's duties last year. In February of this year, after Hayden quit to become a consultant, the veteran hotelier was also named the interim CEO.

PavCo states its mandate is to operate "world class" facilities. Then why does it not recruit the world's best stadium manager or world's best stadium marketer?

Maybe it's because, in the last five years, the Crown corporation has also had a revolving door of ministers responsible: Bill Bennett, Kevin Krueger, Pat Bell, Rich Coleman and now Todd Stone.

The BC Liberals sold BC Rail in 2003 and have frequently partnered with private companies to build and/or manage transportation, education and health infrastructure. But they stubbornly hold onto B.C. Place, which lost $13.34 million during the last fiscal year.

So has the project been worth the investment? On the face of it, no. But we can't yet offer a definitive yea or nay because we're still trying to find out whether the government did due diligence and considered the risks. The government refuses to release via Freedom of Information the entire business case for the renovation. It will only provide a heavily censored copy.

We'll tell you when, or if, we get a full copy.

*Correction Sept.4, 1 p.m.: A previous version of this story misspelled Rebecca Bollwitt's last name. This version has been corrected.  [Tyee]

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